Taken over by poetry
Writer Fee Griffin finds creative inspiration in scenes from ordinary life. The winner of the first Amsterdam Open Book Prize, her first poetry collection For Work/For TV has recently been published. Interview by Yusef Sayed.
The traditional distinction between high art and low art would place poetry and television as opposites, the gogglebox seen as lacking all that literature has to offer the mind. While it is still common to hear complaints about having to read the subtitles of the latest Scandi noir, nowadays acclaimed series like The Wire are more likely to be compared with Dickensian narratives than any recent Booker Prize nominee.
Fee Griffin’s first collection of poems For Work/For TV takes characters, scenes and lines from a variety of television programmes as the basis for frank, humorous and searching verses about memory, family life and metaphysics. An episode of The £100k House, a scene from Back to the Future and the mystery of detective Columbo’s wife are all leaping-off points. Her ‘bibliography’ lists not obscure academic texts, but BBC and Amazon shows recently streamed.
“Something I’m passionate about in poetry is the inclusion of ordinary stuff,” says Fee.
“I think there’s a cliché about poetry, that it should be all about nature and the rolling hills. If we’re talking about poetry hundreds of years ago, that’s probably mostly what there was. But now look at our surroundings. My surroundings are Lovejoy and Columbo and whatever’s on Netflix now, my surroundings include this stuff. And the kind of poetry I like to read is poetry that feels relevant to me.
“I suppose that’s why work and TV is something that I really wanted to write about. It just feels relevant.”
Fee, who lives in East Lindsey, writes about real and virtual lives, always considering where value is placed, how things are perceived – always questioning what else might be possible, both in terms of literary form and individual circumstances. ‘Unheard TV Parts 1-3’, printed as a foldout in the collection, uses subtitles for the hard of hearing from the US version of The Office, perfectly encapsulating Fee’s combined themes of work and TV, and her formal inventiveness.
Her interest in ‘found text’ was also prominent in her contributions to SOfa Fest, the online edition of SO Festival in 2020. For Skegness Sees/Says/Seas, local residents were asked to answer a number of questions and the responses were then used to complete Fee’s reflections on the town and its identity.
Fee’s parents moved to Lincolnshire from Essex, both working at a frozen food factory in North Thoresby. Her recollections of this time and the kind of work her mother and father did, in the canteen and on the factory floor, are behind several of the poems, including ‘Industrial Hauntings #1-4’ and ‘Pea Season Immersive’. In fact the whole project began as part of her university dissertation, with this interest in mind.
“There’s quite a lot of autobiographical stuff in there. About my parents’ jobs and memories of childhood,” says Fee.
“When I started to think about what I wanted to write about, it was the sort of jobs my parents had when I was growing up – at one time, both my parents worked at the Ross and Youngs factory. My dad had this job watching broccoli go by on conveyor belts. It just seemed really weird to me then, almost comic, to spend so much of your time concentrating on something like broccoli. My dad was a really interesting man who read and studied a great deal at home – I think he must have hated it. But as a child I was only struck with the absurdity. I think that absurdity is part of what made me interested in writing about ordinary jobs.
“The TV side of it crept in because I was still breastfeeding my youngest child when I started writing this and when I’m feeding a child, I’m watching a lot of TV because I want some kind of continuity when I’m constantly doing this one task, over and over.
“And when you’re doing a quite tedious job, when you get home you do sometimes want that surrogate social life TV gives you. You feel like you’re interacting with people. It’s like a safe way of interacting with people when you’re too tired.”
It was following redundancy that Fee decided to enrol in a postgraduate course at the University of Lincoln. First considering a field of study that would enhance her job prospects, she ultimately chose a Creative Writing course that would better engage and inspire her.
“Me and my mum were the first people in my family to go to university, which we did in the same year, and I think after I’d finished my first degree I didn’t know what to do with it. I just got a normal job,” says Fee.
“If you’re the main wage-earner you never think, I’m going to quit my job and follow my dream. Having been made redundant it felt like it was an opportunity. That’s when I thought, maybe I could go back to university. Looking at courses, I thought, let’s try and be practical. But I strayed to the creative writing thing, thinking if not now…
“I was working on a young adult novel idea and I knew that I loved poetry but thought, I’ll keep that as a hobby. Then it just took over.”
A mother of four children, Fee took on part-time cleaning jobs to help support her family during her studies. Encouraged to submit her poems for the first Amsterdam Open Book Prize, Fee was confirmed as the winner with her work selected to be published. The book launches a new imprint for Versal, following on from its previous success as a literary journal.
“My tutor [Daniele Pantano] had seen it and suggested that I put in for it. I had spoken to him about having a go at getting it published. He gave me a number of presses and I think he had a contact at Versal. He heard that they were trying to get into publishing full collections and he thought I might be a good fit for the kind of stuff he knew they did in the journal.
“I’m blown away by the fact that they made it so beautiful. My tutor was so jealous when I told him I’d got French flaps! And I love how on the inside they’ve made it like a TV screen, with those diagonal stripes.”
Several of the poems in For Work/For TV made their spoken word debut at live events in Lincoln and Louth. Fee said: “I completely mourn the loss of being able to go along to something live like that – and it’ll come back but I really miss it, as a performer or just a listener.
“But a really nice side-effect in poetry that’s come about from this [pandemic] is that events that we wouldn’t be able to get to easily, like in London, having gone online, we can now go to them. And of course there’s a much wider potential audience for Lincolnshire-based events online as well, like what SO Festival did with SOfa Fest. I’m really hoping that when we’re out of this awful era of Covid lockdowns, some of those nice things hang around and we get to keep them.”
From its poignant dedication – ‘To everyone who ever worked really hard for rubbish money’ – to the attention to detail in the design by Martijn van der Riet, For Work/For TV is a surprising, funny and sharply aware collection of poems that shows the potential for transforming the ordinary, of watching the world in another way. Fee makes writing a part of her daily life, finding that poetry comes together in often unanticipated ways.
“You’re never going to write a brilliant poem by saying: I’m going to sit down now and write a brilliant poem. It doesn’t work that way. I make unbelievable use of the notepad app on my phone, and often stop when I’m at a cleaning job to jot ideas down – other people’s houses, when they’re out, are a great place to think while I’m working!
“At the end of the day, or after a few days, usually just before I fall asleep, I’ll put it on a separate file on the computer. Sometimes it just gets stored, or maybe I’ll have time to work on it a little bit. I’ve probably got about halfway with another collection. It’s really nice to have got into the pattern.
“It’s a normal part of my day and I miss it if I don’t do it, like: where’s my output? We’re so busy. Maxim is as well [Fee is married to regular Lincolnshire Life contributor Maxim Griffin]. He does care work and illustration. We’ve got four kids. And I’ve just started a PhD. We don’t have a lot of time but that really concentrates your effort.
“You’re sort of assembling your own quarry. All these unfiltered thoughts, they hang around in your mind. That’s one way poetry works, it has the job of colliding together ideas that you wouldn’t ordinarily come across together in fiction or non-fiction.”
Fee still works part-time as a cleaner and now also lectures at the University of Lincoln. She is also a poetry editor for The Lincoln Review, the university’s in-house journal overseen by students, which has already published works by Pulitzer prize winner Franz Wright, Joan Ure and Robert Sherman.
“It blows my mind, when I was considering a course to do, I was thinking is there anything I could do to increase my income. And of course poetry is something that nobody makes any money off, right? I now have made some money out of poetry.
“Having this job, temporarily, and a few commissions. I managed to buy my eldest son’s secondary school uniform out of poetry. I quit a cleaning job to take this temporary job at the university. I don’t think that’s a very established path! It certainly makes me realise how lucky I am. I love it, I’m so impressed with my students’ work.”
The author Toni Morrison once expressed her desire to “stop writing around the edges of the day”. She said: “I want to sit down in the middle of the day and spend five hours at it and not feel guilty, that I’m taking some time away from a full-time job or some other chore that I’m supposed to be doing.” For Work/For TV and the story of Fee’s entry into the world of poetry will be encouraging to writers of all ages. A crucial reminder that we need not just be the extras in the backgrounds of others’ lives. That the meaning and value of work – whether it is the ‘day job’, or the ‘collected works’ of a particular artist – are always up for reconsideration. There are some realities that are hard to escape – but we needn’t stop working on it.